We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, "At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you." See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see — we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10)
Lenora loved her family, loved ice fishing and loved snowmobile rides. She baked cookies and who made amazing fried chicken. And on a warm, dry day in August, Lenora’s family – her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren – gathered around her flower-laden casket under blue skies and sunshine to celebrate her life and commit her body to the ground.
We prayed together there at the graveside, and commended Lenora to the Lord’s care. I bent down and picked up a handful of crumbly dirt from a dry patch of earth under my feet. I clung tightly to my handful of dust and dirt and rocks while I spoke:
In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to almighty God our sister Lenora, and we commit her body to its resting place; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.I let the dust spill from my hands onto the casket, tracing in dirt the sign of the cross as I pronounced words of blessing:
The Lord bless her and keep her. The Lord’s face shine up her with grace and mercy. The Lord look upon her with favor and give her peace.And with those words, we trusted and prayed that Lenora had now completed her long return journey home into the arms of her creator.
The dust of the earth that blessed Lenora’s body is the same dust that blesses us as it is smudged across our foreheads tonight. We begin tonight our own return journey – the Lenten journey back to the foot of the cross, the return journey from our wilderness wanderings back to the heart of God. Tonight is our call to mortality, our call to dustiness, our reminder that we have wandered, our reminder that without Christ and the cross, we would be nothing but empty dust, blown about by the wind and scattered, far from the arms of our loving God who longs to embrace us.
As I look around this place, I think about all of the dust that clings to our common life together, a symbol of the earth from which we were created and to which we shall return. I think about the dust of death, as we weekly remember in our prayers those who have lost loved ones. I think about the dust of mortality, as many among us face chronic and terminal illnesses. I think about the dust of fear and uncertainty, as members and friends struggle to find jobs or to make ends meet. I think about the dust of despair, as many in our midst face the gaps in their lives where dreams seem lost and prayers seem unanswered.
Ash Wednesday gives us permission to linger in this dusty space for a bit. Tonight, we let ourselves touch, however briefly, the vulnerable parts of our souls, the parts of our hearts that respond with keen sensitivity to the reality of this temporary world we live in. “Remember that you are dust,” we hear, “and to dust you shall return.” We gather around the dust from which we were created, when God formed us and breathed into us his spirit of life. We gather around the maker to whom we will one day return, even as we return to the dust of the earth.
As I write this sermon, I’m sitting on the couch in my office, staring ahead of me at the decorated wall of my office. A painting of the tree of life, vivid with sunrise shades of orange and gold, is surrounded on two sides by a collection of crosses that have come my way over the years. A large wooden cross that was handmade and given to me for my ordination, a tin cross painted in bold primary colors that I purchased in New Orleans, an olive wood cross that was given to me as a Christmas gift, a small but heavy pewter cross with the image of the crucified Christ that was given to me by a pastor friend and mentor of mine, a brightly colored cross full of beads, a silver cross full of flowers…
And the juxtaposition is not lost on me. The heart of the cross is not, ultimately, death and suffering, though Jesus may have been broken in body and spirit upon its outstretched arms. The cross for us, however, is an ever-flowering tree of life, bathed in the sunrise colors of the resurrection morn.
What, then, of the crosses on our foreheads? Can they be at once reminders of mortality and yet symbols of life for us?
At our baptisms, the sign of the cross was made on our foreheads, sealing us as God’s claimed and adopted children. The cross was marked with oil, anointing us as if we were kings and queens. At our baptisms, the water and the oil, the font and the cross were ultimate signs of life.
Think of the last time that you did arts and crafts with a child, the way that you draw on construction paper with a thin line of white glue, the way that you pour a healthy dusting of glitter over the whole page, the way that you shake off the excess onto a newspaper, the way that your glue drawing has been transformed and revealed by the shimmering dust that now clings to it.
Think of the anointing oil at baptism as that thin line of glue. Think of the dusty ashes as the glitter. The ashes that we pour over our heads today to remind us of our mortality stick to the crosses of our baptisms where we were sealed as God’s chosen, beloved sons and daughters, inheritors of God’s eternal life.
The cross of ashes that we bear tonight is a dusty version of that baptismal cross. It is God’s promise of life that is revealed more clearly with each passing day, with every speck of dust that we kick up along our life journey. It is a symbol of life rising from the ashes; a sign of God’s promises rising to bless us.
“We are treated as dying,” Paul writes in tonight’s Epistle, “and see — we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
Tonight is the beginning, my friends, of our long return journey to the cross. It is the beginning of a journey where we will encounter Jesus in many ways and many places: in the wilderness, in water and in spirit, in living water poured out for all, in new sight, in death and in life, in the pain of the cross, in the glory of resurrection. Just as surely as the oil and the dust cling to our brows, reminding us of the promise of life, so does Jesus cling near to our hearts, our living promise that God is the one calling us back, waiting at the end of our long life’s journey, arms open, feast prepared, anxious for each of us to return home.
So, my friends, “even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”